Political MoJo

Satellite Imagery Shows the Extent of Boko Haram Devastation in Nigeria

| Thu Jan. 8, 2015 6:53 PM EST
Residents stand outside burnt homes in Gambaru, Nigeria after a Boko Haram attack in May 2014.

Update, Thursday, January 15, 2015: New satellite imagery released by Amnesty International shows the extent of the devastation Boko Haram has visited upon northern Nigeria over the past week. Below are before and after images of the town of Doron Baga. Healthy vegetation is colored red.

The Islamist militant group may now control up to 20 percent of the country, according to NPR. Journalists are unable to report on the killing in the north, because approaching the area would be a "death wish," The New Yorker's Alexis Okeowo told host Melissa Block Tuesday.

Update, Friday, January 9, 2015: On Friday morning, Amnesty International said the latest Boko Haram attack could be the "deadliest massacre" in the group's history, if the early reports that as many as 2,000 people were killed turn out to be true.

This week, Boko Haram, the Islamist terror group based in northern Nigeria, launched a massive attack on the town of Baga, killing dozens, according to Reuters. Other initial reports put the number of dead in the hundreds or thousands. The attack is the latest in the group's increasingly bloody campaign to establish an Islamic state in the West African country. The group attained international infamy last April after it abducted some 300 girls. More than 200 of them are still missing.

Over the course of this Tuesday and Wednesday, the militants set fire to buildings in Baga and shot indiscriminately at civilians. Nearly the entire town was torched, according to the BBC. Baga, which had roughly 10,000 residents, is now "virtually non-existent," Musa Alhaji Bukar, a senior government official, told the British news agency.

Here's more from the BBC:

Those who fled reported that they had been unable to bury the dead, and corpses littered the town's streets, he said.

Boko Haram was now in control of Baga and 16 neighbouring towns after the military retreated, Mr Bukar said.

While he raised fears that some 2,000 had been killed in the raids, other reports put the number in the hundreds.

The attack follows an assault by Boko Haram on a military base in Baga on Saturday.

The AFP reported late Thursday that the terror group also decimated over a dozen towns and villages surrounding Baga:

Boko Haram launched renewed attacks around a captured town in restive northeast Nigeria this week, razing at least 16 towns and villages, a local government and a union official told AFP.

'They burnt to the ground all the 16 towns and villages including Baga, Dorn-Baga, Mile 4, Mile 3, Kauyen Kuros and Bunduram,' said Musa Bukar, head of the Kukawa local government in Borno state.

Boko Haram has been terrorizing Nigeria for more than five years. Over the past year, the group has killed more than 10,000 people, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

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The GOP's New Attack on Obamacare May Be the Most Destructive Yet

| Thu Jan. 8, 2015 7:30 AM EST

On Thursday, House Republicans will vote on an anti-Obamacare bill that could toss up to 1.5 million Americans off their employer-sponsored health plans. To make the case that this is a good idea, top GOPers are misrepresenting what the legislation would do. They claim the measure would help prevent companies from reducing worker hours in order to cut employees' health insurance benefits. Yet the legislation would likely encourage businesses to decrease hours so the firms could avoid providing health insurance to workers. "While political leaders often stretch the truth to make their case, they usually don't claim the opposite of the truth," Robert Greenstein, the president of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), noted Wednesday. "That, however, is essentially what Republican congressional leaders are doing."

The bill House Republicans introduced Wednesday would change the way the Affordable Care Act defines full-time work and, thus, who is eligible for employer-sponsored health care. Currently, the ACA requires companies with 50 or more employees to provide affordable health coverage to 95 percent of their full-time workers or pay a penalty. This measure, called the employer mandate, begins to go into effect this year. Under the 2010 health care law, full-time work is defined as 30 or more hours per week. The GOP bill would change the law's definition of full time to 40 hours per week.

Such a move would obviously lead to the loss of employer-sponsored health insurance for many people who work between 30 and 39 hours per week. But there's the bill would have another impact too: It would give employers a powerful incentive to cut the hours of Americans who work 40-plus hours per week to escape the obligation to provide them health insurance. And health care policy experts note that it is more likely that a firm would slice the hours of a 40-hours-per-week worker than an employee who toils 30 hours a week. (More on that below.) Changing the full-time threshold to 40 hours would put some 1.5 million Americans at risk of having their hours docked and their insurance yanked, according to a recent report by the Congressional Budget Office.

Yet top Republicans are claiming the opposite. On Tuesday, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said the bill would enable "more people [to] work full time." Late last year, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) argued the measure would protect the 40-hour work week by "removing an arbitrary and destructive government barrier to more hours and better pay created by the Affordable Care Act."

As I reported Monday, here's why companies would be more likely to reduce workers' hours under the GOP bill's 40-hour threshold than under the current 30-hour per week cutoff:

The 30-hour threshold was intended to discourage companies from cutting workers' hours. Nearly half of Americans work 40 hours a week or more—meaning that, under current law, employers would have to cut those workers' hours by more than 25 percent to avoid buying them health insurance. But if the threshold were 40 hours, as the GOP envisions, many employers would only have to cut workweeks a tiny bit to avoid buying health insurance for their employees. "Raising the threshold to 40 hours would place more than five times as many workers at risk of having their hours reduced," Paul van de Water, a senior fellow at the [CBPP], wrote in 2013.

A flock of prominent conservatives—including political analyst Yuval Levin and columnist Ramesh Ponnuru—have also chimed in against the 40-hour bill.

On Wednesday, President Obama vowed to veto the law if the Senate approves it. But that doesn't mean the bill won't become law. It's possible that Republicans will attach the measure to a must-pass spending bill this year that would be extremely difficult for Obama to oppose.

Fox News Gives Paris Massacre the Benghazi Treatment

| Wed Jan. 7, 2015 6:34 PM EST

On Wednesday afternoon, Fox News's Gretchen Carlson focused on portraying the Obama administration as weak-kneed and out of touch in its response to the massacre in Paris. After interviewing pundit Ari Fleischer, who served as a principal spokesman for President George W. Bush's global war on terror, Carlson went with a familiar script:

"It is what it is. It, meaning terrorism. Terrorism is what it is," Carlson said. "So why does the administration continue to have such a problem telling the American people and the rest of the world just that? Is that a disservice to all of us? In some way giving us a false sense of security? That since our own leaders don't see any of these attacks as terrorism right away, neither should we?"

The problem is, her premise was plain false. Earlier in the day, Secretary of State John Kerry described the attacks as an "act of terror" in direct, forceful terms. "The murderers dared proclaim, 'Charlie Hebdo is dead.' But make no mistake: They are wrong," Kerry said. "The freedom of expression that it represented is not able to be killed by this kind of act of terror."

Also prior to Carlson's commentary, a statement from President Obama was equally clear on this point:

I strongly condemn the horrific shooting at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris that has reportedly killed 12 people. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of this terrorist attack and the people of France at this difficult time. France is America's oldest ally, and has stood shoulder to shoulder with the United States in the fight against terrorists who threaten our shared security and the world. Time and again, the French people have stood up for the universal values that generations of our people have defended. France, and the great city of Paris where this outrageous attack took place, offer the world a timeless example that will endure well beyond the hateful vision of these killers. We are in touch with French officials and I have directed my Administration to provide any assistance needed to help bring these terrorists to justice.

We've seen this script before, of course, when Fox News, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and other conservatives obsessively criticized the Obama White House over the deadly attack on the US consulate in Benghazi in 2012. The argument was that the president didn't call the Benghazi attack "terrorism" quickly enough (before quickly morphing into a conspiracy theory about a massive cover-up of some sort). That was despite the fact that Obama had used the phrase "act of terror" three times in the initial aftermath to describe the attack on the consulate.

In Wednesday's segment Carlson also went on to insinuate that Obama's policy of releasing prisoners from Guantánamo Bay may lead to a Paris-like attack in the US: "Keep in mind this administration is more concerned about executive actions for manufacturing and even climate control today, and releasing Gitmo detainees," she said. "We now know many of those detainees go back to join the jihad. So at this crucial moment, after a horrific attack on one of our allies, will politics continue to trump the reality... In the last few months we've seen terrorism hit Australia, Canada, and now France. Will the United States once again be next?"

What We Know So Far About the Newspaper Massacre in Paris

| Wed Jan. 7, 2015 10:01 AM EST
An injured person is evacuated from the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris on Wednesday.

This story is developing, and being updated below.

Hooded gunmen carrying automatic weapons opened fire at the offices of French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday, killing at least 12 people and seriously injuring 10. The Guardian is reporting that three attackers are still at large, after they were seen escaping in a car.

French President François Hollande said the shooting was "undoubtedly a terrorist attack." France has since raised its terror alert to the highest level.

According to several news reports, the gunmen were heard shouting "we have avenged the Prophet Muhammad" as they stormed into the magazine's offices armed with Kalashnikov rifles. Charlie Hebdo, a newspaper known for its caustic, no-holds-barred cartoons, has previously sparked ire from some Muslims for its satirical take on Islam, including several caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. (The publication of the likeness of the prophet is forbidden under Islam). In 2011, the magazine was firebombed after publishing an issue "guest-edited" by the prophet. 

President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have both condemned Wednesday's attack. 

Several prominent cartoonists, including Jean Cabut and the magazine's editor in chief, Stephane Charbonnier, were among those killed. 

Since news broke of the attack this morning, the hashtag #JesuisCharlie has been spreading on Twitter in support of the victims. The US Embassy in France also changed their Twitter profile photo to include the hashtag. 

Cartoonists around the world have also shown their solidarity with Charlie Hebdo with powerful images:

Update: Thursday, January 8, 2015, 8:30 a.m. EST: Two suspects believed to be behind the deadly Paris attack, Said and Cherif Kouachi, remain at large. A third suspect, Hamyd Mourad, surrendered to authorities. 

Elizabeth Warren Slams GOP for Hypocritical Push on Keystone XL

| Tue Jan. 6, 2015 5:44 PM EST

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is attacking Republicans for trying to force the Obama administration to approve the Keystone XL pipeline while simultaneously promising Democrats a renewed spirit of bipartisanship in Congress.

"There's going to be an energy hearing on Wednesday, and right now, the Republicans say they're going to move forward on the Keystone pipeline," Warren said Monday. "If we're going to move forward on something how about something that more of us can agree on?"

"A bill that's about energy conservation, energy efficiency, and about jobs and has strong bipartisan support. There is a place we can start." 

Separately, Warren told the editorial board of MassLive.com that the GOP's push for Keystone belied the party's purported eagerness to work with Democrats. "This tells me that with the Republican rhetoric that they are going to find things for us to work together on—their actions don't match their words."

Warren's criticisms came a day before the White House formally announced that President Obama will veto legislation forcing his hand on the pipeline. Senate Democrats have previously expressed confidence that Republicans would be unable to override a veto.

"I think there will be enough Democratic votes to sustain the president’s veto,” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told CBS's Face the Nation Sunday.

During last month's end-of-year press conference, the president signaled his skepticism over the pipeline's purported advantages for Americans, calling it a "nominal" benefit for US consumers and a boon for Canadian oil producers. 

Tea Party Heartthrob Ben Carson Once Lived the Hobo Life Hopping Freight Trains

| Tue Jan. 6, 2015 5:15 PM EST

Before he was a prospective 2016 Republican presidential candidate, Ben Carson was just another disaffected teenager who hopped freight trains in search of thrills.

Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who plans to make a final decision about running for president by the end of May, became a tea party favorite after ripping into President Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013. Since then, he has staked out far-right positions on issues like gay rights (which he believes are part of a Marxist plot), the AP US History curriculum (which he fears will be an ISIS recruiting tool), and the 2016 election itself (which he believes might be canceled due to a societal breakdown).

Carson's rags-to-riches story, as a one-time juvenile delinquent raised by a single mom who rose to the top of the medical profession, is at the core of his personal appeal. It has been the subject of a best-selling book and a feature-length movie. His youthful habit of hopping aboard moving freight trains is considerably less well known. But as Carson explained in his 2008 book, Take the Risk, he and his older brother, Curtis, began riding freight trains after moving back to Detroit from Boston for middle school:

We didn't think twice about it at the time, and Mother certainly didn't know about the risks we took, but just getting to and from school in our new neighborhood was a dangerous proposition. The fastest and most exciting way to commute was to hop one of the freight trains rolling on the tracks that ran alongside the route Curtis and I took to Wilson Junior High School. Curtis liked the challenge of fast-moving trains, tossing his clarinet onto one flatcar and then jumping to catch the railing on the very last car of the train. He knew if he missed his chance, he risked never seeing his band instrument again. But he never lost that clarinet.

Since I was smaller, I usually waited for slower trains. But we both placed ourselves in great danger we didn't ever seriously stop to consider. Not only did we have to run, jump, catch the railing, and hold on for dear life to a moving freight train, but we had to avoid the railroad security who were always on the lookout for people hopping their trains.

They never caught us. And we never got seriously injured like one boy we heard of who was maimed for life after falling onto the tracks under a moving train.

As I reported in the January/February issue of Mother Jones, freight-hopping has always attracted a certain brand of (usually male) individualists who are skeptical of centralized authority. Carson's Bo Keeley phase came to an end, however, after a run-in with a gang of racist youths. "We stopped after an encounter I had with a different threat as I trotted along the railroad tracks on my way to school along one morning," he wrote. "Near one of the crossings, a gang of bigger boys, all of them white, approached me. One boy, carrying a big stick, yelled, 'Hey, you! Nigger boy!'"

If elected, Carson wouldn't be the first president with a hobo past. When Harry Truman was 18, he got a job with the Santa Fe Railroad, which required him to manage the migrant workers who rode the rails to do manual labor for the company. "Some of those hoboes had better educations than the president of Harvard University, and they weren't stuck up about it either," he later recalled.

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RIP Mario Cuomo

| Thu Jan. 1, 2015 9:10 PM EST

Former three-term governor of New York Mario Cuomo died Thursday, the same day his son Andrew was inaugurated to a second term of his own as governor of the Empire State.

Here is Mario Cuomo's famous speech criticizing Ronald Reagan from the 1984 Democratic Convention.

These Charts Show How Ronald Reagan Actually Expanded the Federal Government

| Tue Dec. 30, 2014 7:15 AM EST

One of the many, many problems Jeb Bush faces in his quest for the Oval Office is his break from Republican orthodoxy on president Ronald Reagan's legacy. In 2012, Bush told a group of reporters that, in today's GOP, Reagan "would be criticized for doing the things that he did"— namely, working with Democrats to pass legislation. He added that Reagan would struggle to secure the GOP nomination today.

Bush was lambasted by fellow conservatives for his comments, but he had a point: If you judge him by the uncompromising small government standards of today's GOP, Reagan was a disaster. Here are a few charts that show why.

Under Reagan, the national debt almost tripled, from $907 billion in 1980 to $2.6 trillion in 1988:

Reagan ended his 1988 farewell speech with the memorable line, "man is not free unless government is limited." The line is still a rallying cry for the right wing, but the speech came at the end of a long period of government expansion. Under Reagan, the federal workforce increased by about 324,000 to almost 5.3 million people. (The new hires weren't just soldiers to fight the communists, either: uniformed military personnel only accounted for 26 percent of the increase.) In 2012, the federal government employed almost a million fewer people than it did in the last year of Reagan's presidency.

Instead of praising Reagan's small government philosophy, maybe Republicans should look to Bill Clinton's action for guidance. By the end of Clinton's second terms, the federal workforce was at its smallest size in decades.

The Cost of US Wars Since 9/11: $1.6 Trillion

| Tue Dec. 23, 2014 7:15 AM EST
Marine Infantry Officer Course students stand by before a helicopter drill in Arizona.

The cost of US war-making in the 13 years since the September 11 terrorist attacks reached a whopping $1.6 trillion in 2014, according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

The $1.6 trillion in war spending over that time span includes the cost of military operations, the training of security forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, weapons maintenance, base support, reconstruction, embassy maintenance, foreign aid, and veterans' medical care, as well as war-related intelligence operations not tracked by the Pentagon. The report tracks expenses through September, the end of the government's 2014 fiscal year. Here's a breakdown of where most of that money went:

The key factor determining the cost of war during a given period over the last 13 years has been the number of US troops deployed, according to the report. The number of troops in Afghanistan peaked in 2011, when 100,000 Americans were stationed there. The number of US armed forces in Iraq reached a high of about 170,000 in 2007.

Although Congress enacted across-the-board spending cuts in March 2013, the Pentagon's war-making money was left untouched. The minimal cuts, known as sequestration, came from the Defense Department's regular peacetime budget. The Pentagon gets a separate budget for fighting wars.

In the spending bill that Congress approved earlier this month, lawmakers doled out $73.7 billion for war-related activities in 2015—$2.3 billion more than President Barack Obama had requested. As Mother Jones' Dave Gilson reported last year, US military spending is on pace to taper far less dramatically in the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars than it did after the end of the Vietnam War or the Cold War.

Other reports have estimated the cost of US wars since 9/11 to be far higher than $1.6 trillion. A report by Neta Crawford, a political science professor at Boston University, estimated the total cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—as well as post-2001 assistance to Pakistan—to be roughly $4.4 trillion. The CRS estimate is lower because it does not include additional costs including the lifetime price of health care for disabled veterans and interest on the national debt.

Chart by AJ Vicens.

A Majority of Cop Killers Have Been White

| Sun Dec. 21, 2014 9:59 PM EST
Investigators work at the scene where two NYPD officers were shot in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn on Saturday.

As officials continue to investigate Saturday's tragic killing of two NYPD officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, details have surfaced about the suspect, 28 year old Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who allegedly shot a woman in Baltimore before traveling to New York. Anti-police posts he appears to have published on social media sites prior to the killings have lead many to connect his crime to protests that occurred in previous weeks, and some commenters have cast blame on officials including New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Attorney General Eric Holder, and President Obama, all of whom have condemned the violence. (Read my colleague Kevin Drum's response to that.) 

But, while every killing of an officer is a tragedy, it is worth noting, as my colleague Shane Bauer reported in the context of another story, assaults and felony killings of police officers in the US are down sharply over the past two decades. Attention has also been focused on Brinsley's race, but FBI data shows that, though African Americans are arrested and incarcerated at a higher rate than whites, the majority of assailants who feloniously killed police officers in the past year were white.